Urgent Campaign Records Eyewitness Accounts of Terror Attacks in Israel

USC Shoah Foundation Founder Steven Spielberg Reflects on Importance of October 7 Testimony Collection
December 4, 2023
Shaylee Atary Winner, with her daughter Shaya, was interviewed at an evacuation center in central Israel on October 23.

In the moments before Shaylee Atary Winner escaped from her home in the early morning hours of October 7, she saw her husband fighting to close the iron window grates in their safe room over the hand of a terrorist who was reaching in.

With a glance, Shaylee and her husband silently agreed she would take their baby and run.

She moved barefoot down the once peaceful roads of Kibbutz Kfar Aza with her 4-week-old daughter, Shaya, in her arms as shots exploded nearby and terrorists went from house to house. She took cover behind bushes and motorcycles, then ducked into a garden shed and grabbed a hammer to use as a weapon.

“When I was with Shaya in the garden shed, I told myself, ‘Shaylee, think about Holocaust films. What would a mother and a baby do?’ Because this is how it felt. I felt like they are actually running after me and Shaya, like she is prey. … No regular situation in my regular reality could be even close to what we [were going] through,” Shaylee said.

Shaylee eventually found refuge in a neighbor’s safe room, where she was rescued 27 hours later. By that time her daughter was lethargic and severely dehydrated but has since recovered. Shaylee, a singer and actor, later learned that her husband, filmmaker Yahav Winner, had been murdered with a shot to the back of his head.

Two weeks after Hamas’ brutal attacks in Israel, Shaylee sat on a lawn outside an evacuation center and recounted her experience to a USC Shoah Foundation interviewer. Hers is one of 130 interviews recorded as part of an ongoing and critical USC Shoah Foundation initiative to collect testimonies from October 7 survivors. Some of the eyewitness accounts evoke chilling echoes of the Holocaust.

The USC Shoah Foundation holds the world’s largest video collection of Holocaust survivor and witness testimony. The organization is now urgently working with production teams on the ground in Israel to collect accounts of the October 7 attacks as part of its growing effort to secure testimonies of victims of antisemitism since 1945.

Dr. Robert J. Williams, Finci-Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation, said the emerging collection will serve as an essential resource for experts around the world, as well as inform the programmatic work of the USC Shoah Foundation.

“Shaylee’s experience is devastating, but it is important to learn these personal, emotional details. We have an obligation to record and then responsibly share these testimonies so that scholars, policymakers, and the public can fully understand the brutality that ensues when extremists, terrorists, and others are animated by antisemitic hate. We need to understand where antisemitism can lead, and we need to build awareness and resilience against it,” Dr. Williams said.

The USC Shoah Foundation is working with a number of international partners, as well as a recently launched key partnership with Tablet Studios, in order to grow and share the October 7 collection and amplify its reach.

October 7 survivor testimonies will also be accessible to the public through the USC Shoah Foundation’s collections portal, the Visual History Archive™, where they will join the testimonies of more than 56,000 survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. The October 7 testimonies will constitute part of the USC Shoah Foundation’s Countering Antisemitism Through Testimony Collection (CATT), which documents post-Holocaust antisemitism.

“The surge in antisemitism around the world in the last few years should alarm anyone who cares about human rights and democratic values,” Dr. Williams said. “This expansion of the archive not only creates opportunities for millions of people to learn about and remember the Shoah, but also to understand the experiences of contemporary victims of the same persistent hatred that led to the Holocaust.”

Dr. Williams, who co-edited the recently released Routledge History of Antisemitism, is the advisor to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), where he previously served as chair of its Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial.

Shortly after beginning his tenure as executive director in late 2022, Dr. Williams initiated significant growth of the USC Shoah Foundation’s CATT collection along with the development of programs to promote scholarship, research, and journalism around new testimonies related to contemporary antisemitism.

After the October 7 attacks, the expansion of the collection was accelerated.

“Rob Williams and the team at the USC Shoah Foundation are leading an effort that will ensure that the voices of survivors will act as a powerful tool to counter the dangerous rise of antisemitism and hate,” said Steven Spielberg, who founded the organization in 1994.

Spielberg said the brutality of the October 7 Hamas attacks, along with the surge in antisemitism in their aftermath, has re-opened historic wounds.

“I never imagined I would see such unspeakable barbarity against Jews in my lifetime,” Spielberg said.

In addition to collecting testimonies from October 7 survivors, the USC Shoah Foundation continues to interview Holocaust survivors and witnesses who have not yet recorded their testimonies. Hundreds of Holocaust survivors – many of them children during World War II – have recorded testimonies in the last few years, and the USC Shoah Foundation is encouraging other potential interviewees to come forward.

“Holocaust survivors are the most courageous and brave among us, and their accounts are a lasting testament to the resilience of the human spirit,” said Spielberg. “Both initiatives — recording interviews with survivors of the October 7 attacks and the ongoing collection of Holocaust testimony — seek to fulfill our promise to survivors: that their stories would be recorded and shared in the effort to preserve history and to work toward a world without antisemitism or hate of any kind. We must remain united and steadfast in these efforts.”

On October 7, Joel Citron, chair of the USC Shoah Foundation board of councilors, was in Israel visiting his mother, a Holocaust survivor whose testimony is contained in the USC Shoah Foundation’s archive.

“My mother’s experience taught me how corrosive and contagious antisemitism is. This is why I have dedicated myself to ensuring that the lessons of the Holocaust are learned,” Citron said. “It is heart-wrenching to know that Jews are still being targeted, and worse, that people around the world are justifying and celebrating the pogrom of October 7.”

Citron, who provided indispensable leadership through the swift launch of the October 7 collection, noted that several Holocaust survivors were among those attacked by Hamas, including a number who recorded testimonies for the new collection.

“Nothing is more chilling than knowing that Holocaust survivors had to endure yet another violent and hateful expression of antisemitism,” Citron said.

In mid-November, Citron returned to Israel to support relief efforts. He met with survivors from Kfar Aza, and later visited the ravaged kibbutz. While he was in Kfar Aza, rocket fire forced Citron into a safe room – much like the room where Shaylee Atary Winner last saw her husband.

As she started her interview, Shaylee jostled a fussy Shaya before handing her off to a caregiver.

She said that Shaya gave her first smile while they were in the safe room on October 7, a smile her husband Yahav – who was thrilled to become a father – will never get to see.

But despite how utterly broken Shaylee feels, every time Shaya cries or stirs, she somehow manages to pick herself up, just as she did when she made her legs run down the besieged road in Kibbutz Kfar Aza as her husband resisted terrorists in the safe room of their home.

“I need to be as strong for Shaya as I can be, but also to allow myself to heal my soul so there won’t be any leftover trauma that will hurt her,” Shaylee said. “I wish myself only power – that I will have the power for this next life without [Yahav]. That I will have the strength.”

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, a former senior staff writer at the Jewish Journal, is a writer and content strategist at USC Shoah Foundation.

To watch more testimonies, visit https://sfi.usc.edu/antisemitism/testimonies.

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